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Ignorance is bliss

Publication Date : 18-05-2012


It is remarkable to think that it has been three years since the mother of all military operations in Swat forced more than two million people from their homes down into the plains of the Peshawar valley and beyond.

The staggering figures confirmed that it was the single biggest displacement of people since 1947 Partition. But, three years on, what stands out is the fact that everyone — but for those who live with the memory of the operation and what preceded it — seems to have, to put it bluntly, moved on.

Of course move on we must; all human tragedies must give way to a new dawn. Yet one cannot help but wonder why the Pakistani state is finding it so difficult to lead its people to that new dawn, and instead prefers to keep reproducing the tragedy.

It is not in the news these days, but since January almost half a million people have left their homes in the Khyber Agency as a military operation is launched against terrorists for the umpteenth time.

The Jalozai camp in Mardan district that was such a focus of TV cameras three years ago is presumably no longer a good human interest story, even though there are at least twice as many refugees sheltering there now than in the aftermath of the Swat operation. The media’s whims aside, the operations keep continuing, and their effects remain as ambiguous as ever.

No attempt has been made by government, the military or anyone else to tell us how much longer we must wait for "terrorism" to be forever banished from our midst (which is inevitably what we are promised when the bombardment commences in all its glory).

Lest one take some comfort in the knowledge that a lack of disclosure about the killing fields of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Fata can be explained by some mythical "security" imperative, the situation further north should clarify that the powers that be simply prefer to keep passive populations in relatively peaceful parts of this country ignorant of realities on the ground.

Many of us do know that the peace in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) was shattered approximately two months ago, and that a spate of "sectarian violence" made the region virtually impassable, for outsiders at least.

What many of us do not know is that a virtual 24-hour curfew was imposed upon the local population for a number of weeks, and that completely unaccountable and murderous raids were launched by security forces and "non-state" militias alike across the entire region for much of this time. The curfew remains in force presently, even if it has been relaxed to allow the common hordes out during daylight hours.

GB has, informed readers will know, been in the throes of sporadic — apparently "sectarian" — violence for the best part of two decades now. The army and paramilitaries have been called in numerous times to quell this violence, yet, for reasons that no one seems bothered to explain, the "terrorists" remain at large, new recruits always available, and the ordinary people of GB still pawns in a game that they either cannot explain, or are too scared to expose.

These are not isolated episodes. The history of the modern nation-state (or state-nation in the case of Pakistan) is that of violence and underdevelopment in the peripheries concurrent with relative stability and development in core regions.

This history is a microcosm of combined and uneven development at a global level, or what I still prefer to call imperialism.

In the final analysis while it can be argued that many of us do not know what goes on in KP, Fata, GB, Balochistan or even the peripheries of metropolitan centres like Karachi because the reality is deliberately obfuscated by the state’s spin doctors, reading between the lines implicates those of us who are relative beneficiaries of the prevailing social order.

Our holy guardians and their lackeys will do what they do, but how many of us ask the questions that need to be asked?

Some of the most momentous people’s movements in the recent history of the world were examples of implosions from within the belly of the beast itself. The eruption of an anti-imperialist movement within the United States at the height of the Vietnam War changed the history of the world, galvanising popular resistance to colonial and neo-colonial regimes across the globe.

The massive anti-war demonstrations in western capitals in 2003 as US-led forces prepared to invade Iraq were no less historic, even if revolutionary upheavals did not follow as in the preceding historical juncture.

Today Punjabis are on the street, yes. But not because they are outraged that their own country (wo)men on the peripheries of the state are living their lives out in squalor and fear. Instead, they are demonstrating their deep sense of entitlement — and with it relative ignorance and lack of concern for those on the peripheries — by demanding an end to loadshedding.

Of course I do not for one moment believe that any Pakistani should assent to wilting in the summer heat without power, especially those who cannot afford generators and UPS. But those who believe themselves to be the conscience of society, a mantle to which so many of our TV anchors and intellectuals lay claim, must surely be held to account for choosing not to rouse popular sentiment within the heartland against the crimes of state on the peripheries.

Questions must also be asked of those mainstream politicians — particularly those claiming to represent a new brand of politics — that are playing to the gallery in the heartlands. Yes the most seats are to be won in the most populous parts of the country, but it is now increasingly obvious that there is no political force that can seriously claim to enjoy meaningful support in both the heartland and on the peripheries.

This is why we have coalitions, yes, but politics is not only about the ballot and piecing together majorities on the basis of an electoral mandate every half decade (although I must confess that such an exercise taking place repeatedly and without interruption three or four times would constitute genuine progress). Pakistan faces, among other structural crises, real questions about its identity that must be confronted maturely and on the basis of a long-term vision.

They say ignorance is bliss. I say as many of us as possible need to say that they are wrong.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


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